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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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She paid $18,500 for a service dog but became the dog’s ‘emotional support human’ instead

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SEATTLE — During the throes of the pandemic in 2020, Amy Fellows struggled to get her then-11-year-old autistic child, who has severe anxiety, to leave the house. She thought a service dog could help.

Fellows soon found herself mired in a booming, but largely unregulated, industry catering to people with disabilities.

She first tried an Oregon nonprofit that trains dogs to assist people with autism, but it had a three-year waiting list, Fellows said. So when she learned the Spokane-area business Dogology NW could get her a service dog in a matter of months, she was eager to sign up.

After receiving help from her mother with the $18,500 cost, she and her child went to pick up the “newfypoo” puppy, a Newfoundland and poodle mix, named Beep. But they soon realized Beep had problems, she said.

He was scared of a hotel cleaning cart. He cowered and shook on trips outside the house. Even today, after Fellows paid a different trainer thousands of dollars, Beep and her child still can’t share the same room. The service dog growls at her child.

“Beep was a big disappointment for my child,” Fellows said. “I basically became [Beep’s] emotional support human, almost immediately.”

Fellows is one of the customers who sued Dogology NW, which changed its name to Unleashed Academy after a trademark lawsuit, for selling a dog she said was unfit to help people with disabilities.

Their cases, and similar ones around the country, highlight how trainers bound by few legal standards can leave vulnerable customers feeling wronged by the service dog industry.

At least three lawsuits target Spokane-area dog trainer Mary Davies or her business entities, including Dogology NW, Dog Sciences LLC and Unleashed Academy. They include a lawsuit from two customers who are seeking class-action status, a breach-of-contract case and an employment law case brought by a dog trainer who said she and others were misclassified as independent contractors. The state Attorney General’s Office has also received multiple complaints.

While Unleashed Academy places dogs around the country, many are in the Pacific Northwest. The plaintiffs range from a Seattle woman with anxiety to a San Francisco Bay Area woman with autism, anxiety and depression. They all brought home the dogs, which cost up to $40,000, and allege they didn’t have the temperament or weren’t trained to be service dogs.

Davies and her lawyer defended the company and the quality of its dog training; she said some people who sued and complained about the company had unrealistic expectations.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people who call us think these are robot dogs, and they’re going to solve their psychiatric problems,” Davies said. “But they can’t.”

Fellows, who lives in Eugene, Ore., eventually won a judgment in small claims court last year for about $10,000, the maximum amount allowed in small claims court.

“Beep was not remotely sufficiently trained, not suited to public access conditions,” a Spokane County Superior Court judge’s order found.

Adam Karp, the Bellingham lawyer who represented Fellows in a small claims case and also filed the class-action complaint alleging fraud, said that based on allegations he’s received, he believes there are more than a dozen people who may have a claim.

“It’s not just a single fluky problem or a difficult client,” Karp said. “It’s apparently a more systemic issue.”

“Let the buyer beware”

To qualify as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” which can include everything from pulling a wheelchair to calming a person with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack.

But that’s about the extent of federal or state laws on service dog training. People with disabilities have the right to train their own service animals, and there’s no requirement for a professional training program, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Local governments are also barred from requiring service dog registration.

Amid this lack of government regulation, the industry has boomed in recent years, particularly for dogs intended to help people with autism and PTSD. There’s an industry accreditation body with strict standards — Assistance Dogs International — but it only approves nonprofit training programs, leaving room for companies to sell service dogs without oversight.

“If you’re a family that has an autistic child, you are desperate to find solutions,” said Lynette Hart, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine whose research focuses on service animals. “They are very vulnerable to someone who is claiming to provide a well-trained dog.”

“It’s definitely a huge area where the motto should be, ‘Let the buyer beware,’” she added.

A trainer might have years of experience with dogs but lack the expertise to work with the people these dogs will serve, said Sheila O’Brien, vice president of Assistance Dogs International.

“A lot of people have good intentions, but they’re just not prepared to work with the variety of disabilities they’re taking on,” she said.

Trainers across the country have landed in court, facing accusations they violated consumer protection laws, and some have been ordered to pay restitution.

Davies said in an interview that all their service dogs meet the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, and on average they have more than 500 hours of training.

The company and its “team members take great pride in the service dogs that they train for people in need,” David Bingaman, a lawyer for the company, wrote in a letter to the Attorney General’s Office, responding to a complaint.

Unleashed Academy has placed more than 300 service dogs over the past six and a half years, and about 1% were “not an ideal match,” Davies said.

“To have a couple of people that are upset because it hasn’t worked out how they wanted, it doesn’t shock me,” she said. “The vast majority do not have complaints.”

Since 2020, the Attorney General’s Office has received four complaints against Davies’ companies. Two were referred to an informal, voluntary complaint resolution process, but the parties didn’t come to an agreement. One was closed when the customer said she wasn’t looking for a financial dispute; another was withdrawn by the complainant. The office doesn’t confirm or deny if it is investigating a business.

In 2018, the state Legislature stepped into the issue when it passed a bill to “penalize the intentional misrepresentation of a service animal.” But instead of addressing trainers and the industry, the new law focused on individual handlers, or pet owners, who were trying to bring unqualified animals into restricted public places like restaurants.

Mister Murphy’s troubles

At 81, Virginia Edmonds hoped a service dog could help her with daily activities. She had arthritis and relied on a walker or cane after diabetes-related foot surgeries.

Edmonds went online and was happy to find Dogology NW was advertising trained dogs near her Spokane apartment. She paid $7,850 for a 5-month-old goldendoodle, which came with a “service dog” badge and certificate that can be bought online for $69 with no questions asked about its training. Edmonds named him Mister Murphy.

But Mister Murphy grew quickly, and Edmonds couldn’t restrain him, she wrote in a complaint to the Attorney General’s Office. He pulled her over on walks, sending Edmonds and her walker crashing onto the street. She’s now one of the two plaintiffs on the class-action complaint.

Davies said Edmonds and others who’ve complained didn’t continue the company’s training methods after picking up their dogs, so the animals resorted to bad behavior.

“There are no questions of what the dog was trained to do,” Davies said. “What we can’t control is what the people do when they leave.”

Edmonds’ lawsuit, however, said she “could not use Mister Murphy as a service dog due to his intractability, lack of proper training, and unreliable temperament.”

“Incredibly expensive pets”

Wary of the initial problems with Beep, Fellows had the dog evaluated by other service dog trainers who told her Beep was too fearful to be an effective service animal, according to records she presented in court. Fellows filmed him in Home Depot and PetSmart with his tail tucked between his legs, his eyes darting around.

“I can’t take my dog to Petco,” she said. “People with dogs from the pound can take their dogs to Petco.”

Fellows decided to keep Beep despite the strain on her family because she said she had bonded with him, and “I grew up in a family where if you have a dog, you have a dog. You don’t just give a dog away.”

Fellows didn’t stay for the multiday in-person training when she picked up the dog, so she didn’t know how to handle him, Davies said. Fellows said her child was too anxious to stay a second night at a hotel during the pandemic.

“You can’t blame the person,” said O’Brien from Assistance Dogs International. “Service dogs really have to be at their best when the person is at their worst.”

Service dog trainers have come under scrutiny in other states as well.

In 2021, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring settled a suit against Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers Inc., which advertised dogs trained to help people suffering from diabetes, PTSD, seizure disorders and autism. The lawsuit alleged the diabetes-alert dogs, for which Warren charged up to $27,000, “were often poorly trained, ill-behaved, and unequipped to help manage a life-threatening situation, rendering them little more than incredibly expensive pets.”

Attorneys for owner Charles D. Warren Jr. said the state’s case was based on the complaints of “a few disgruntled and fanatical consumers” who “cannot be satisfied and refuse all attempts at accommodation and reason,” according to The Associated Press.

As part of a legal judgment, Warren agreed to pay restitution to consumers and have a lifetime ban from charitable organizations and breeding, training or selling companion animals.

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